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Texas vs. Rice: 3 things we learned about the Longhorns

There's a new starter at quarterback for the Horns and some additional hope in a key area.

Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Texas Longhorns pulled out a 42-28 victory over the Rice Owls in Austin on Saturday night and provide some much-needed momentum for a team reeling after a third straight blowout and change in offensive play callers.

Here are three things to take away from the win:

1. The narrative about Heard seemed all wrong

Just when it seemed like time to sell low on the redshirt freshman because the staff kept indicating Heard wasn't ready to play, his energy and scrambling ability keyed the victory and ensured that he'll head into Cal game week as the starting quarterback, according to head coach Charlie Strong.

Noting that Heard brought some energy and juice to the Texas offensive attack, Strong joked that true freshman Kai Locksley would have his chance in an extend period of laughter in his post-game press conference. Amazing how the relief of a win and some positivity at the game's most important position can seemingly change everything.

But here's the most important thing -- Heard made the plays that were there, whether it was picking up yardage on the ground or hitting big plays in the passing game. Once or twice he brought his eyes down too quickly, but for the most part he made the right decisions. With his speed in taking the edge or creating seams up the middle, the offense looks completely different with Heard.

So why didn't he play more against Notre Dame? Strong admitted his mistake in not giving Heard a chance and freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson had quite a statement after the game:

Was former play caller Shawn Watson too caught up on giving junior quarterback Tryone Swoopes another chance. It kinda seems like it now given how emotional Watson got in defending Swoopes.

2. The defense has to tackle better

Asked why the Texas defense gave up third-down conversions on 14-of-21 attempts by Rice, Strong esimated the number of missed tackles at 20 and the number of missed sacks at 10. Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson notably shook freshman linebacker Malik Jefferson several times early and escaped another arm tackle shortly thereafter. Strong thought the defense got a little hesitant at that point and giving up leverage in the process.

Had the Longhorns kept contain and forced Jackson to stay inside in those situations, it might have been a different game. Losing leverage and failing to collapse the pocket was a big problem against Notre Dame, so it's still an area where the Longhorns need some improvement. From the defensive ends creating more pressure to the defensive tackles finding ways to get into the backfield, the defensive line hasn't been the team strength the coaches advertised heading into the season.

Playing two defensive tackles who under 6'0 may be part of the problem, so junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway has to get in better shape and get fully healthy because no one else on the line is making plays right now. Can junior Paul Boyette, Jr. step up? What's keeping senior Desmond Jackson and sophomore Poona Ford from having an impact?

3. The special teams can be an asset

When was the last time that Texas clearly won the special teams battle? It's been some time, but with 175 punt return yards and a touchdown from senior wide receiver Daje Johnson and senior cornerback Duke Thomas, two kickoff returns for 60 total yards by Johnson and sophomore running back D'Onta Foreman, and some strong efforts by freshman punter Michael Dickson, the Horns did that on Saturday.

After travelling "a million miles" and maturing under Strong, Johnson was finally able to make some plays again, looking like the player he hinted at during his first two seasons and in high school. Four suspensions in three seasons reduced the expectations for the Plugerville Hendrickson product, but Strong never gave up and Johnson was able to walk the line long enough to give himself another chance.

On Saturday, he finally took advantage of it and looked electric every time he touched the ball.